They were standing on the edge of a huge chessboard, behind the black chessmen, which were taller than they were and carved from what looked like black stone. Facing them, way across the chamber, were the white pieces. Harry, Ron and Hermione shivered slightly – the towering white chessmen had no faces.
“Now what do we do?” Harry whispered.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” said Ron. “We’ve got to play our way across the room.”
As a Wizarding Chess afficionado, Ron quickly figures out that the giant chess pieces they encounter in Professor McGonnagall’s task have been transfigured into the moving, “living” pieces of Wizarding Chess. He quickly deduces that the three of them will have to take the places of black chess pieces and confirms this with one of the black knights:
[Ron] walked up to a black knight and put his hand out to touch the knight’s horse. At once, the stone sprang to life. The horse pawed the ground and the knight turned his helmeted head to look down at Ron.
“Do we – er – have to join you to get across?”
The black knight nodded.
Unlike Professor Flitwick’s complex task, this one is fairly straightforward – once it’s figured out. The prospective thief has to take the place of a black chess piece and play a successful game of chess. But therein lies the problem. While it takes intelligence to play chess, having intelligence is no guarantee of success.
Chess is a game of strategy, and so it takes a strategic thinker to win at it – someone who can see the big picture, comprehend the implications of the opponents’ moves, and plan moves in advance. In other words, it takes a specific type of intelligence. This is what makes McGonnagall’s task rather brilliant. It narrows the field considerably concerning who would be able to get to the next door. Hermione herself (minus Ron) would likely not have passed successfully through this task.
But Why Is This Task for Gryffindor?
Shouldn’t chess be more of a Ravenclaw specialty? I mean, in RL it is the province of those crypto-Ravenclaws of the Muggle world – Math and Computer geeks. So why should this be the task for the Head of House for Gryffindor?
Transfiguration: Well, the most obvious answer is that the task requires the pieces to undergo Transfiguration spells… and Transfiguration is McGonnagall’s specialty. In fact, it seems that Transfiguration is something of a Gryffindor specialty. Such noted Gryffindors as Professor Dumbledore have specialized in Transfiguration. And several recent Gryffindors (three Marauders and Professor McGonnagall) are known to be capable of making the animagus transformation (not technically Transfiguration, but certainly requiring Transfiguration skills as a prerequisite).
Transfiguration, according to McGonnagall, is among the most “complex and dangerous magic” taught at Hogwarts – the danger, perhaps, being a reason the discipline seems to coalesce around Gryffindor. But thus far (at Hogwarts at least), we’ve seen mainly the lighter side of Transfiguration. We’ve watched Professor McGonnagall transfigure her desk into a pig (and back again), teach her First Years to change a match into a needle, and test them on turning a mouse into a snuffbox. In the chess task, we finally see the more serious application of Transfiguration.
War: Additionally, chess is a warlike game, involving pieces that emulate soldiers crossing a battlefield. The game, in fact, is won by capturing the opposing player’s King. Gryffindor, of course, is the most warlike of Houses – the House that most highly values bravery and chivalry. And McGonnagall’s version of chess creates an aura of battlefield danger, guaranteed to unnerve your average prospective thief.
The white pieces don’t just “take” black pieces. They hit and break them, with strong stone arms:
[The Trio’s] first real shock came when their other knight was taken. The white queen smashed him to the floor and dragged him off the board, where he lay quite still, facedown.
Every time one of their men was lost, the white pieces showed no mercy. Soon there was a huddle of limp black players slumped along the wall.
McGonnagall’s transfiguration transforms a game based on war into an actual simulation of war.
Strategy: Smart as the Ravenclaws are, and crafty as the Slytherins, the best strategic thinker in the series is Albus Dumbledore – who manages the wars against Voldemort like a master moving pieces around the board. While Dumbledore’s Slytherin protegé, Severus Snape, is a brilliant tactician, Snape is not essentially a strategist. And this perhaps shows us something about the differences between Ravenclaw intelligence, Slytherin intelligence, Hufflepuff intelligence, and Gryffindor intelligence.
Ravenclaw is often said to admire abstract, theoretical knowledge. Slytherin admires skill and practical application. Hufflepuff emphasizes an earthy, pragmatic, common-sense approach. But despite its reputation (largely among Slytherins) for reckless action, Gryffindor, perhaps, brings the strongest capacity for strategic thought.
Certainly the evidence for strategy being the most Gryffindorish type of intelligence is a bit thin if we base it entirely on Dumbledore, but if we consider that strategy is the quality most desired in warfare – and martial ability is a huge part of the Gryffindor portfolio – then we perhaps have a more solid circumstantial basis for linking Gryffindor with strategic intelligence.
So What Do We Learn about McGonnagall?
She’s pretty formidable – far more formidable than the no-nonsense witch who sternly greets new students.
Not only does she perform the necessary transfiguration to animate the pieces, she “programs” the white pieces to respond to the black strategy and create a dynamic strategy for defense of the Stone. (Curiously, too, she uses the traditional color scheme of white representing the “good” defenders of the Stone and black representing the “bad” prospective thieves).
Unless there is a ready-made spell that gives transfigured pieces the sort of strategic knowledge necessary to play a human opponent without human assistance, McGonnagall must have chess-expert knowledge of the inner workings of the game in order to give the pieces that ability. (And given that chess is the task she chooses, my bet is that she does.)
Additionally, this simulation of battle foreshadows what we will ultimately see of McGonnagall in the context of a real battle in DH – as she defends Hogwarts against the minions (and assumed minions) of the Dark Lord.
McGonnagall ruthlessly duels presumed Death Eater Severus Snape in one of the corridors of the castle (making it, I think, safe to say that the scary White Queen of Transfigured Chess is a striking symbolic representation of McGonnagall herself). And the actual animation of the chess pieces is a foreshadowing of McGonnagall’s calling on the statues and armor to do their duty and defend the school during the Battle of Hogwarts:
“And now – Piertotem Locomotor!” cried Professor McGonnagall.
And all along the corridor the statues and suits of armor jumped down from their plinths, and from the echoing crashes from the floors above and below, Harry knew that their fellows throughout the castle had done the same.
“Hogwarts is threatened!” shouted Professor McGonnagall. “Man the boundaries, protect us, do your duty to our school!”
Clattering and yelling, the horde of moving statues stampeded past Harry: some of them smaller, others larger, than life. There were animals too, and the clanking suits of armor brandished swords and spiked balls on chains.
“Now, Potter,” said McGonagall, “you and Miss Lovegood had better return to your friends and bring them to the Great Hall – I shall rouse the other Gryffindors.”
That is the quintessentially Gryffindor Professor McGonnagall in the context of war. She takes charge. She defends the school. And she shows no mercy to any she believes would dare overthrow Hogwarts.
[Translation of Piertotem Locomotor: “All do your duty!”]